There were four more stabbings in London over the weekend, bringing the total number of fatalities in the capital this year to 68. Nick Ferrari, was quick to take to the airwaves to label Mayor Sadiq Khan as “incompetent”. The President of the United States also thinks the Mayor should shoulder the blame. He fingered the London Mayor on Twitter, calling him a “national disgrace” who is “destroying” London. He also retweeted the alt-Right columnist Katie Hopkins, who described London as “Stab-City” and “Khan’s Londonistan”.
But is this a true reflection of the facts? Knife crime, it’s true, has risen in London, but it is not significantly higher than it was in 2011/12. There were just over 14,000 knife or sharp instrument crimes recorded by the Metropolitan Police in 2011/12; there were 14,700 in 2017/18.
The more worrying statistic, in fact, is that knife crime is rising more steeply outside the capital, beyond Khan’s purview. 42 out of the 44 police forces across England and Wales have reported rises since 2011. There were 39,818 offences in the 12 months to September 2018, compared with 23,945 in the year ending March 2014. Knife crime has now risen for the fourth consecutive year in England and Wales.
As the BBC reports:
West Midlands Police has seen an 87% increase in knife crime offences since 2013/14, while there has been a 47% rise for the Metropolitan Police, a 95% increase for Cambridgeshire Police, and a 99% increase for Thames Valley.
Of course, behind every statistic is an individual tragedy. There was heavily pregnant Kelly Mary Fauvrelle, who was killed on 29 June in Thornton Heath, aged 29. Or Jodie Chesney, a 17-year-old who was stabbed and killed while playing music in a park in Harold Hill, Havering, on 1 March. Or 16-year-old Sidali Mohamed, a refugee from Somalia who was stabbed to death outside a Birmingham sixth form college on 13 February. Many of the victims are, indeed, extremely young. The number of 16-year-olds treated for stab wounds has doubled over the past five years.
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So what is to blame? Suspicion has fallen on everything from austerity to drill music to family breakdown to the personal failings of Sadiq Khan. But some of these explanations carry more weight than others.
Austerity measures introduced since 2010 do appear to have had an effect, though not always in an obvious way. A recent study by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime found that councils which had implemented significant reductions in youth services were more likely to have seen an increase in stabbings. Correlation does not equal causation, of course, yet the four areas worst-hit by youth spending cuts saw some of the largest increases in knife crime. Nationwide, councils have cut spending on youth services by about 40% since 2014; Wolverhampton, which reduced spending by 91% is covered by the West Midlands force, which has reported an 87% rise.
Labour, meanwhile, has been quick to blame falling police numbers for rising knife crime. “You cannot keep people safe on the cheap and these deep cuts have had terrible consequences,” the Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott wrote recently for the political blog Left Foot Forward.
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Britain’s most senior police chief, Cressida Dick, appears to agree, and has claimed that there is “some link” between violent crime and falling police numbers. The number of police officers in England and Wales has been cut by more than 20,000 since 2010. This seems the most obvious place to start pointing the finger. However Theresa May caused consternation earlier this year when she said there was “no direct correlation between certain crimes and police numbers”.
Indeed, it is difficult to draw a definitive causal link between rising knife crime and falling police numbers, as Tom Chivers has argued. Violent crime typically occurs in the heat of the moment and is less prone to influence by rational calculations about the likelihood of getting caught. Yet this is not proof of no link.
Police chiefs point to the “county lines” phenomenon to explain the problem. This is where inner-city drug gangs transport drugs – and violence with it – to small towns and rural areas using children and young adults as drug mules. County lines activity was reported by 71% of police forces in England and Wales in 2016. Internal police documents seen by The Guardian reveal that “85% of forces report knives referenced in relation to county lines intelligence, 74% report firearms referenced”. Welfare cuts may also have contributed to the problem, as a nationwide increase in youth homelessness has left more young people susceptible to the lure of gangs.
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There is also an ethnic disparity in knife crime – in terms of both its victims and perpetrators – which may relate to this. Black men make up 44% of victims and 48% of suspects of knife crime, according to a Freedom of Information request by Sky. Just as homeless young people can be drawn into gangs, those from fatherless homes may be lured in too. Six in ten black Caribbean children and those in mixed-race households grow up in single-parent families. The comparable figure is 22% for those from white families.
Britain’s law and order brigade – and many of Sadiq Khan’s critics – are inclined to call for more stop and search whenever knife crime is reported in the news. Yet it was Sadiq Khan’s predecessor as Mayor, Boris Johnson, who significantly rolled this back.
As the Mayor Watch website notes:
“By October 2013 [during Boris’ second term as Mayor] the number of stops in some boroughs had fallen by as much as 43%.”
One of the reasons stop and search is so controversial is because it so disproportionately affects the black population. Forty-three per cent of those targeted by stop and search in 2018 in the capital were black, according to the London Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime. Despite accounting for 59.8% of London’s population, white people made up only 35.5% of stop and searches. Sadiq Khan recently promised a stop and search “blitz” – three years after promising to “do everything in my power to cut stop and search”.
Yet the effectiveness of the tactic is limited, and potentially damaging to community relations. According to a study carried out over ten years by the College of Policing, higher rates of stop and search were associated with “very slightly lower than expected rates of crime” in the following week or month – but only for certain crimes such as burglary and drug offences.
Sentencing, too, is still mired in confusion: tough-sounding announcements from the government are often unmatched by actions on the ground. The Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 introduced a minimum custodial sentence of six months for repeat knife crime offenders. Yet recent figures show that two-thirds of those caught carrying a knife escaped a custodial sentence, while one-in-five repeat offenders were still avoiding prison.
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Perspective is important. Violent crime in England and Wales is significantly down on where it stood two decades ago. Two in every 100 adults were victims of violent crime last year, compared with five in every 100 adults in 1995. There does appear to have been an uptick since 2015 – it rose by 19% in the year to September 2018. Yet it is still far lower than it was during the 1990s.
It is also far lower in London than in most American cities, despite Trump’s intervention.
Knife crime is a complex issue that has a range of societal and structural causes. Reducing it will require an approach that not only apprehends the perpetrators but which also deals with the underlying causes: economic insecurity and austerity, lenient sentencing, family breakdown, structural racism, the glamorisation of gang violence as well as the failing ‘war on drugs’.
The notion that Sadiq Khan alone is responsible for the spike in knife-related crime – barely three years after taking office – carries little weight when knife crime has been rising faster outside of the capital. Those jumping on every tragedy to designate London ‘stab city’ or ‘Londonistan’ appear more concerned with damaging community relations than with preventing the further loss of life.